What Am I Tasting?

We have a solidly built red with plum and fig flavors, and details of vanilla. What could it be?

September 06, 2019

Our blind tasting game—without the tasting! Can you identify a wine just by reading its tasting note? We post real Wine Spectator reviews. You use clues such as color, aromas, flavors and structure to figure out the grape, age and origin. Good luck!

Tasting Note: Solidly built, with lots of dark plum, fig and blackberry compote flavors forming the core, enlivened by a streak of licorice snap and backed by sweet toasted vanilla accents and brambly grip on the finish. Densely packed but shows ample energy. Will cellar nicely.

And the answer is...


Variety

Our mystery wine is a full-bodied, rich red with energy and grip, showing ripe dark fruit and spice notes. Let's look into our options.

Cinsault often demonstrates spice, but we hit a roadblock with the type of fruit and the tannins: Cinsault typically displays red fruit, and these wines are too light in body and structure to match our bold, grippy red.

Pinot Noir is made around the world, and can show many shades of ripeness, tannins and fruit, depending on where it's grown. But we would generally expect a Pinot to show more fresh red fruit and vibrant acidity than our dense, dark wine exhibits.

Licorice and spice are spot-on for the Austrian grape Zweigelt, but again, these wines show predominantly red fruit. Additionally, Zweigelt spice is more black pepper and less vanilla.

Nebbiolo is the most esteemed grape in Italy's Piedmont region, and is prized for the tannic, ageworthy wines it makes. "Dense" and "energetic" could certainly describe a Nebbiolo, and licorice and vanilla are common descriptors as well. However, Nebbiolo's red fruit and floral aromas—most often cherry and dried rose—aren't a match here.

Syrah originated in France's Rhône Valley but, like Pinot Noir, it has done a fair amount of traveling and is now a major grape in countries like Australia, South Africa and the U.S. Consequently, Syrah is made in several different styles. Riper examples of Syrah tend to be full-bodied and structured, with ripe dark fruit and spice notes, often from oak influence. Of our options, this is by far our best match.

This wine is a Syrah.

Country or Region of Origin

Knowing our mystery wine is a Syrah, we can narrow down our options fairly easily. We can eliminate Uruguay, as there are very few Syrah plantings here and much more of an emphasis on Tannat for making its dark, grippy wines. Austria is also not a great fit here, as the country's winemakers have mostly concentrated on indigenous grapes like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch for their red wines.

There is some Syrah being grown in New York's Finger Lakes region, but the region's weather can present difficulties for the grape in terms of ripening properly. There are a handful of good examples, but these tend to be much leaner and fresher than the rich, ripe, structured red we have here.

We are left with France and South Africa, two major countries for the grape. Let's delve a bit more into the differences between Old and New World Syrah. In the Old World, such as in France's Northern Rhône, Syrahs tend to have ripe but bright red and black fruit, earthy notes and spice in the form of its signature black pepper details.

In New World countries like South Africa, Syrah (or Shiraz) is made in warmer climates, and the resulting wines show it. In these regions, Syrah's fruit becomes much darker and riper—think "fig" and "compote"—with a fuller body that is marked by very structured tannins. Sweeter spice aromas are common here too.

Our mystery wine could feasibly be a very ripe, very modern style of French Syrah, but it is much more likely that it is from South Africa. It shows vanilla and not black pepper, it doesn't have any earthy notes, and its body and structure are dense and brambly, like a classic New World Syrah.

This Syrah is from South Africa.

Appellation

We know that our Syrah is from South Africa, so we can eliminate Austria's Burgenland, France's Cornas, New York's Finger Lakes and Uruguay's Progreso. This leaves us with Cape Point and Stellenbosch.

Cape Point is a southerly peninsula appellation that is defined by its ocean influence and is much cooler than many of South Africa's best-known wine regions. Here, white grapes thrive, like Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon for Bordeaux blends, but there aren't many red varieties planted here.

Stellenbosch is a hilly, mostly landlocked region of South Africa that is overall pretty dry and hot. Many robust red grapes do very well here, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Expect ripe, dark fruit, sweet spice and great structure.

This Syrah is from Stellenbosch.

Age

Syrah can be quite tannic and acidic in its youth, so it benefits from extensive time in barrel, with additional years in bottle. New oak, which is common in South Africa, may add toast or vanilla notes, which we have in our wine. We are likely looking at a red that has spent significant time developing in barrel, but that is not old enough to have more mellow fruit or show additional tertiary notes.

The 2014 vintage went through an overall cool, wet growing season; 2012 was also quite cool. The ripeness of our wine suggests it hails from a warmer vintage, such as 2013, which was overall successful and yielded reds that are dark, fleshy and spicy, but kept some of their energy.

This Syrah is from the 2013 vintage, making it six years old.

Wine

This wine is the De Trafford Syrah Stellenbosch 393 2013, which scored 93 points in the Oct. 31, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $85; 250 cases were made and 70 cases were imported. For more information on the wines of South Africa, read associate tasting coordinator Aleks Zecevic's tasting report, "A New Way Forward," in the June 15, 2019, issue.

—Collin Dreizen